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Tigris and Euphrates Floods

Many violent floods mentioned in Mesopotamian literature at other periods may have been the authentic Flood faced by the Sumerian Noah. The waters of the Tigris and Euphrates are essential to the life of the country, but they may also threaten it. The rivers are at their lowest level in September and October and at flood in March, April, and May when they may carry forty times as much water as at low mark. Moreover, one season's flood may be ten or more times as great as that in another year. The Tigris River winds its way from its birthplace in the mountains of eastern Turkey through Iraq to the Shatt al Arab and the Persian Gulf. Fed by mountain snow and rainfall, the river is prone to springtime flooding. Flooding in this region is an annual affair, though typically, the floods peak in April and May when spring snowmelt flows out of Iran. Allowed to flow unchecked, the rivers wrought destruction in terrible floods that inundated whole towns. When the rivers were controlled by irrigation dikes and other waterworks, the land became extremely fertile.

Because the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates above their confluence are heavily silt laden, irrigation and fairly frequent flooding deposit large quantities of silty loam in much of the delta area. Windborne silt contributes to the total deposit of sediments. It has been estimated that the delta plains are built up at the rate of nearly twenty centimeters in a century. In some areas, major floods lead to the deposit in temporary lakes of as much as thirty centimeters of mud.

Archaeologists have looked for evidence of this flood in Sumer, and although it does not appear everywhere, it does seem that there were serious floods in one area about this time. Excavations in Mesopotamia have led archaeologists and other scientists to conclude that a number of serious floods occurred there between 4000 and 2000 BC. It is possible that one of these floods was so destructive that it made a lasting impression on the population and became a subject for the ancient literature of the period.

Eridu lies 12 miles SW of Ur, which lies atop the alluvial plain of the Euphrates, while Eridu lies 20 feet below the alluvial plain in a great depression called the Khor el Nejeif. This basin fills up with freshwater during the May floods of the Euphrates to become a great freshawater sea, about the size of the brackish freshwater Sea of Galilee in Israel. Sebkhas, or saline lakes, are characterized by an abundance of soluble salt, especially chloride and sulphates that are precipitated at the surface.

A prolonged series of excavations was conducted at Ur under the leadership of Sir Charles Leonard Woolley from 1922 to 1934. Woolley found evidence of a settlement at Ur during the `Obeid Period (before 3500 B.C.). Flint objects, clay figurines, and pottery of the `Obeid type were made by the pre-Sumerian settlers at Ur. Above this `Obeid level, Woolley found a layer of silt from three to eleven feet thick which he thought to be the remains of the biblical flood. This seemed to support the claim of a catastrophic flood in the area around 2800 BCE. The event was clearly a local, not a global, event, however) and pre-dates the Biblical book of Genesis in the tale of the good Ziusudra who builds a great boat by the will of the gods and gathers inside two of every animal.

According to tradition Kish was the first city founded after the Biblical flood. Captain Ernest Mackay and Stephen Langdon, excavating at Kish, also came upon flood deposits, but pottery evidence indicates that the two floods did not take place at the same time or even in the same century. Watelin found evidence of two floods, one dated in 1923 as occurring about 3400 BC and the other some six hundred years earlier. He further suggested that the later flood may have been the flood mentioned in the Bible. The Dynasty of Kish, the second of the Babylonian dynasties of the Sumerian rulers, was once dated as early as c.4401-3815, but is now dated at 2844 BC.

The Tigris and Euphrates rivers changed their beds several times, and the so-called flood silt may have been formed when the rivers inundated parts of the land that had earlier been inhabited. Martin Beek suggests that the so-called flood silt was not caused by water at all. In his opinion it was produced by the dust storms which occur in southern Mesopotamia each spring and summer.

The flood layer in Ur discovered by Leonard Woolley occurred about the same time as a flood in Nineveh, but is dated in the late Ubaid period [generally held to have ended around 3800 BC]. This Ubaid period flood was too early to be the flood of Ziusudra which was dated by archaeologist Max Mallowan at the end of the Jemdet Nasr period and the beginning of the Early Dynastic I period. This flood was radiocarbon dated at about 2900 BC flood and corresponds to flood layers attested at the Sumerian cities Shuruppak, Uruk, and the oldest of several flood layers at Kish. This flood of 2900 BC left a few feet of yellow mud in Shuruppak. The Kish Flood of 2600 BC was too recent to be the Deluge.

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